Thursday, September 15th, 2011
Lots to say about Juan Gabriel Vásquez' new book -- I have no time to post right now but just want to say (midway through) that this is an absolutely captivating read and you should put it on your list.
Maybe the first thing I noticed about The Secret History of Costaguana is the conversational tone its narrator, José Altamirano, adopts -- as he is telling his story, he is chatting with the reader about his narrative choices, editorializing, debating whether he should continue on one thread or backtrack... And it seems like this might be Vásquez' natural style, based on the Author's Note at the back of the volume. He may have gotten the idea for the book, he tells us, from his first reading of Conrad's Nostromo, in '98; or perhaps it was in 2003, when he was working on a biography of Conrad; or...
This playful, second-guessing narrative style works very nicely for a historical novel that is constantly calling into question the history and the versions of history which form its fabric. The reader cannot trust the narrator -- the narrator tells the reader up front not to trust him -- and cannot trust the narrative of history.
Friday, September 16th, 2011
It's hard to know where to begin with The Secret History of Costaguana -- here are a few things I find myself wanting to call attention to, in no particular order. (Well in an order to be sure; but likely not the best one.)
It is a book that wears its sources gladly on its sleeve, that does not make you puzzle over what references are to what; the author and narrator are most obliging in pointing out where to look for further reading, in helping you catch the wordplay and history-play and genre-play, of which there is plenty -- a surpassingly playful book. (There are also more subtle bits of play that you need to be looking for to catch -- I felt happy to get a Quixote reference that I could have missed ("...a certain Conradian novel whose name I do not care to remember..."), and which I thought also contained a reference on the translator's part to Grossman.) Borgesian is an adjective that could probably be applied without too much disregard for the truth.
Suicide is a major presence in this book; so far, midway through, one major character has killed himself and two more have attempted it. (One of these attempts, Joseph Conrad's, was a piece of historical fact, and a very important piece of the book's fabric.)
Joseph Conrad's role in the book is wonderful and puzzling. I still have not gotten to the point where the narrator meets him. The narrator is kind-of trying to draw parallels between his own life and Conrad's, indeed he spends a lot of time on this, but I'm not sure why he is doing it. He is not claiming to be an alter ego of Conrad, but he is pushing for there to be some kind of bond between their existences. Not clear yet.
Speaking of Conrad, it seems like kind of a major liability for me in getting the most out of this book, that I have never read Nostromo. If I were ever going to reread this book, it will be after I have read the Conrad.
One reference that I am surprised not to see anywhere is to Gabriel García Márquez -- the book's historical subject overlaps a fair bit with that of 100 Years of Solitude, but Vásquez does not tip his hat to García Márquez at all, that I can see. I guess there's not really any need to... The book is not at all similar to 100 Years outside of the subject matter, but I had a corny notion that a good title for a review of Costaguana would be "100 Years of Multitude".
Well that's probably enough verbiage. Below the fold, for those who would care to indulge, two magnificent passages from Costaguana. Spoiler warnings apply as always.
In Chapter Ⅲ ("Joseph Conrad Asks for Help"), the narrator relates the back story of Santiago Pérez Triana, the man who will introduce him to Conrad. Triana is an important figure in the politics of Colombia's civil wars; and the narrator feels obliged to give the reader "a very brief lesson in Colombian politics":
...The moment that would define the fate of Colombia for all history, as always happens in this land of philologists and grammarians and bloodthirsty dictators who translate The Iliad, was a moment made of words. More precisely, of names. A double baptism took place at some imprecise moment of the nineteenth century. The gathered parents of the two chubby-cheeked and already spoiled infants, those two little boys smelling since birth of vomit and liquid shit, agreed that the calmer of the two would be given the name Conservative. The other (who cried a little more) was called Liberal. Those children grew up and multiplied in constant rivalry; the rival generations have succeeded each other with the energy of rabbits and the obstinacy of cockroaches...
At the end of Chapter Ⅵ ("In the Belly of the Elephant"), after interweaving Conrad's journey up the Congo to relieve the company's agent at the interior station with the unraveling of his own father's life and sanity in the wake of the failed Panama Canal project, the narrator describes his father wandering among the abandoned excavation equipment, in a scene that I think might very well be described as Conrad-esque:
He walked around the machine slowly, stopping beside each leg, pulling the leaves away with his hands and touching each of the buckets that his arms could reach: the old elephant was ill, and my father circled it in search of symptoms. He soon found the elephant's belly, a little shed that served as the monstrous tank of the excavator's engine room, and there he took shelter. He did not come out again. When, after a fruitless two-day search of Colón and the surrounding area, I managed to discover his whereabouts, I found him lying on the damp floor of the excavator. Fate decreed it would rain that day as well, so I lay down beside my dead father and closed my eyes to feel what he would have felt during his last moments: the murderous clatter of the rain on the hollow metal of the buckets, the smell of the hibiscus, the shirt soaked through with the cold of the wet rust, and the exhaustion, the pitiless exhaustion.
Saturday, September 17th, 2011
November 12, 1902. The postcard that commemorates that disastrous date is well known (everyone's inherited the image from their victorious or defeated fathers or grandfathers; there's no one in Colombia who doesn't have a copy of that memento mori on a national scale). ...From left to right and from Conservative to Liberal: General Victor Salazar. General Alfredo Vásquez Cobo. Doctor Eusebio Morales. General Lucas Caballero. General Benjamín Herrera. But then we remember (those who have the postcard) that there is among these figures -- the Conservatives with moustaches, the others bearded -- a notable absence, the kind of emptiness that opens in the middle of the image. For Admiral Silas Casey, the great architect of the Wisconsin treaty, the one in charge of talking to those on the right and convincing them to meet with those on the left, is not in it.
At the opening of Chapter Ⅷ ("The Lesson of Great Events") the Thousand Days' War is coming to an end -- Great Events have had their impact on the history of the country and on the history of the narrator's family. Conrad has not been present in the opening chapters of part Ⅲ -- but the book is fast approaching its dénouement.
Anne McLean passes along a link to her translation of Juan Gabriel Vásquez' essay on "Misunderstandings Surrounding Gabriel García Márquez" ("Malentendidos alrededor de García Márquez", El malpensante 2006) -- a wonderful piece of writing in which Vásquez examines how García Márquez chose his influences in the course of developing his voice: how an author consciously goes about choosing influences, how he can acknowledge the greatness of the magical realism of Macondo without considering it an appropriate influence for his voice. I have seen the line from García Márquez about Faulkner's being a Caribbean author but had never really thought about how strong of an influence Faulkner was on his voice (though looking back I see I have spoken of the two authors in the same breath).
The ideas from the essay seem similar to ones I've heard voiced by Diego Trelles Paz in relation to El futuro no es nuestro -- in particular the line that "there is nothing further from late-twentieth-century Bogotá, or the European experience of a young emigrant, than the Macondian method" -- Vásquez is not in that collection but perhaps I can think of him in a group with those authors.
Monday, September 19th, 2011
I spent a fair amount of mental energy during my reading of The Secret History of Costaguana, trying to figure out what assertions were being made -- what the narrator Juan Altamirano thought, what Juan Gabriel Vasquez thought -- about Altamirano's claim on Conrad's fiction. Altamirano's complaints that Conrad "robbed me," "erased me from my own life," seem quite heartfelt and sincere -- and it seems like one could make a pretty straightforward transition to read them allegorically, as complaints about European and North American colonial powers robbing Colombia of its self-determination, erasing Colombians from their own history. (Or something approximately like that -- I'm still not sure just where I would go with this.) Is this reading intended?
The trouble is, it's difficult for me to buy the complaint on the literal level -- to accept that Altamirano actually feels Conrad has robbed him -- so difficult for me to buy into any allegorical reading of it. Conrad's answer to Altamirano -- that he has written a fiction, that the notes he took from Altamirano's confession were a tool he used along the way to composing a world that has nothing to do with Altamirano's life -- strikes me as pretty obviously true, and basically what I had been thinking during the reading leading up to it. And Altamirano seems like a pretty sophisticated guy (and a guy whom I am identifying with), how would he not see this? Even after the second meeting with Conrad he is attached to his claim against Conrad.
Not really sure if this is a flaw in the structure of the book. It certainly provoked thought and confusion for me, which I count as a positive... If the book were intended as a polemic against colonialism it would be a pretty poor one; and since I thought of it as a very good book, that makes me think that can't be what's going on here.
Thursday, December 15th, 2011
by Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Although I’ve been doing it non-stop for thirty years, in spite of living my life surrounded by other people who are always doing it, I still think there are few activities so intriguing as the reading of novels.
December 8, 2011
I keep wondering why we do it: why would an adult devote his time, his mental energies, his moral intelligence to reading about things that never happened to people who never existed; how could this activity be so important, so vital, that this person would voluntarily withdraw from real life to carry it out. I've come across a few answers over the years, some of them in conversations with other addicted readers, but mostly in books here and there along the way. And indeed, the most recent of these books is truly marvelous: The Naïve and Sentimental Novelist consists of six essays in which Orhan Pamuk seeks to answer one crucial question: What happens to us when we read (and write) novels? This book is the most illuminating, most stimulating, most abundant examination of this difficult topic that I've read in years. I can do no less than to offer this urgent call to readers.
"I have learned by experience that there are many ways to read a novel," says Pamuk. "We read sometimes logically, sometimes with our eyes, sometimes with our imagination, sometimes with a small part of our mind, sometimes the way we want to, sometimes the way the book wants us to, and sometimes with every fiber of our being." In other words: there are no two identical readers of the same novel; not even two identical readings. And this fact, which seems so obvious, is what can explain the effects, the intimate, unpredictable effects the novel can have on us. What are these effects? Pamuk says we read the way we drive a car, pressing the pedals and shifting gears while watching the signals and traffic and the landscape around us: our intellect moves in a thousand and one directions in every instant. With part of our mind we do the simplest thing: follow the story. But readers of "serious" novels are doing something more: are looking constantly for the secret center of the novel, for that revelation the novel seeks to bring to light, which cannot be summarized, which can only be expressed just as the novel expresses it. Sábato was once asked what he meant to say in On Heroes and Tombs. Sábato replied, "If I could have said it any other way, I would never have written the book."
To read a novel is to leave behind a Cartesian understanding of the world. We know these things never happened, but we believe in them as if they had happened; we know they are the product of someone else's imagination, but we live through them as if they were a part of our own experience. "Our ability to believe simultaneously in contradictory states," according to Pamuk, is an essential characteristic of the reader of novels; another one is the urge to understand, not to judge, the characters. "At the heart of the novelist's craft lies an optimism," says Pamuk, "which thinks that the knowledge we gather from our everyday experience, if given proper form, can become valuable knowledge about reality." As readers, we share in this belief: that a good novel is a means of bringing a little bit of order to the chaos which reigns around us, of beginning to understand it. And that’s no small thing.
Vásquez (who I think is my favorite new author that I found out about this year) writes a weekly column for Bogotá-based newspaper El espectador. Many thanks to Mr. Vásquez for allowing me to post this translation here, and especially to Anne McLean for helping me to contact him and for passing an editorial eye over my effort. It reads much more smoothly with her suggestions incorporated.
Monday, January second, 2012
Looking around for background material to help me understand The Informers, I happened on an interview with the author from two years ago, in the winter 2010 issue of BOMB. Lovely reading -- always puzzling and enchanting to hear from someone so thoughtful, so clear-spoken -- and yes, some good background material to help with reading this novel.
April 9th, 1948: The mob dragging the corpse of Juan Roa Sierra.
Photo W. Torres - El Tiempo.
The pavement of 7th Ave. is broken there by the tram tracks (that don't go anywhere, that get lost under the pavement, because the trams, those trams with blue-tinted windows that my father told me about, haven't existed for years), and as I, standing in front of the Augustín Nieto building, read the black marble plaque that describes the assassination in more sentences than strictly necessary, Sara, thinking I wasn't looking, crouched down at the curb -- I thought she was going to pick up a dropped coin -- and with two fingers touched the rail as if she were taking the pulse of a dying dog. I kept pretending I hadn't seen her, so as not to interrupt her private ceremony, and after several minutes of being a hindrance in that river of people and putting up with insults and shoves, I asked her to show me exactly where the Granada Pharmacy had been in those years when a suicidal man could buy more than 90 sleeping pills there. A year and a half after Konrad Deresser's suicide, Gaitán's murderer had been taken by force inside the pharmacy to prevent the furious mob from lynching him, but he'd been dragged from the pharmacy by the furious mob, which had punched and kicked him to death and dragged his naked body to the presidential palace (there is a photograph showing the body leaving a trail of shedded clothing behind like a snake shedding its skin: the photo isn't very good, and in it Juan Roa Sierra is barely a pale corpse, almost an ectoplasm, crossed by the black stain of his sex).
-- The Informers
Wednesday, January 25th, 2012
Juan Gabriel Vásquez took part in a live chat at the Guardian's Books section today -- here is what he has been thinking about recently:
For three whole days I have been thinking about Conrad's novels. Three in particular: Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent. I wrote a small text trying to suggest how amazing it was that those three novels, published between 1899 and 1907, anticipate every major issue the world had to deal with during the ⅩⅩ century.
Oh and also: " I have a tendency to trust translators, mainly because nobody does it for the money."
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